Leading from the Left

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Poverty in Appalachia

I grew up in Eastern North Carolina. Lots of poverty. There was a wrong side of the tracks and a right side of the tracks, and everyone knew the difference though nobody could remember ever being told. It was just one of those things you simply knew.

And until Mexicans started arriving in the early 1990's, there was a black side of town and a white side of town. Segregation, de facto though no longer de jure, hadn't really been wiped out during the Civil Rights era. It simply hunkered down and kept it's mouth shut. Latino immigrants are starting to blur racial lines that have been cemented in for four centuries.

I remember riding past the homes of the poor, wondering what life was like on the inside. Some of them were no more than shacks: tar paper, plywood, rusty tin roofs, occassionally a piece of corrugated tin nailed to the side of a house to cover a hole, smoke billowing from the chimney ("was this their only heat source?").

Poverty in Eastern North Carolina is something we lived with; it simply was. I've heard that if you sliced North Carolina off at I-95, then the eastern counties would be the poorest state in the nation. I believe that.

My memories of those days bubbled up last night and this morning after watching a great piece last night on ABC about poverty in Appalachia. Nothing had prepared me for what Diane Sawyer reported during her hour long 20/20 documentary last night. Much of what I thought I knew about poverty in the South, poverty in America, flew out the window.

I woke up this morning haunted by the images of teeth rotted out by Mountain Dew, drug-addicted mothers, parents walking 8 miles each way every day to study for their GED, the young football star illegally digging coal along the side of the highway so he could keep his family warm, the same star sleeping in his car so he could attend a better high school, the shacks and lack of food, the lack of hope, ever-present drugs and crime.

Sawyer's piece is disturbing. She shows us a side of America we like to think doesn't exist; poverty of the magnitude that could only occur somewhere else--in third world countries, 'over there.' Sawyer reminds us that we have alot of work to do closer to home.

We here in North Carolina need to re-commit to fighting poverty in our portion of Appalachia. While the Sawyer piece focused on the hills of Eastern Kentucky, many of the same stories could be told in western NC. When we drive through the mountains, we see natural beauty. But hidden under that beauty, in the hollers and in the hills, is something ugly and wretched--poverty and hopelessness.

We can do better.

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